- Aristotle’s Empiricism: Experience and Mechanics in the 4th Century BC by Jean De Groot
While Aristotle is mostly famous as the father of natural teleology, De Groot sets out to offer us a picture of the “other,” hitherto neglected Aristotle, whose natural science is thoroughly influenced by mechanistic procedures and ideas. Her monograph is impressive: it provides a wealth of detailed and philosophically rich discussions of sometimes overlooked (pseudo-) Aristotelian texts, diagrams, and tables that help visualize the often technical materials she discusses, and bold and original claims that will perhaps not convince everyone, but that will need to be taken into account in future studies of Aristotle’s natural philosophy.
By drawing attention to the operation of mechanical notions such as the moving radius principle and the latent power of torque in some of Aristotle’s core natural treatises, but also in treatises such as the Mechanics and the pseudo-Aristotelian Physical Problems XVI (neither of which have received much attention yet in scholarship on Aristotle), De Groot aims to demonstrate that Aristotle’s natural philosophy has the following three hitherto unacknowledged characteristics: that it is (1) deeply mechanical and not just teleological; (2) physical and empirical as opposed to dialectical or narrowly constrained by the scientific concerns from the Posterior Analytics; and (3) deeply informed by mathematics, and therefore concerned with relation and proportion, making his natural philosophy quantitative and not just qualitative. The notion of the empirical that De Groot attributes to Aristotle is not what she calls the usual, “naïve” one, according to which Aristotle simply accepts the phenomena as they appear and then turns those appearances into causes in his explanations of natural phenomena. Instead, she argues that, for Aristotle, being empirical involves a critical, almost bodily form of perceiving, such that we first become familiar with mechanical principles, such as the moving radius principle, through our kinesthetic awareness of them in everyday actions such as rowing a boat or casting a fishing rod. Subsequently, by observing the analogy between such mechanisms and other natural phenomena, we are able to formulate mechanical principles as empirical principles of nature and use them to our advantage in explaining those natural phenomena. In the same way, De Groot argues that core Aristotelian concepts such as power (dunamis) and form (eidos) were grounded in perception and had, from their inception, strong physicalistic contents derived from [End Page 498] Aristotle’s interactions with, for instance, levers and rudders. On this account, powers are thus first and foremost abilities to produce action, not potentialities correlated to actualities in a metaphysical sense.
De Groot explicitly frames her investigation into the role of mechanical thought in Aristotle’s natural philosophy as independent from his concerns with natural teleology and offers little in terms of how the two interests might fit together in Aristotle or how he might have used them as joined strategies for gaining knowledge about the natural world (xviii, 366–68). Granted, De Groot’s project is already very ambitious and lengthy, so perhaps these are necessarily topics for future research, but it does raise the worry that the picture of the “mechanical Aristotle” that her book offers is as much a caricature as the “thoroughly teleological one” she sets out to reject. Some discussions seem artificially one-sided, as for instance the treatment of Aristotle’s account of the variety of motions among the heavenly bodies in On the Heavens II 12 (99–101), which plays up the application of the moving radius principle despite the fact that the perceived complexity of the movements of the heavenly bodies seem to violate that principle (unlike their varying speeds, the complexity of their motions cannot be explained by reference to their closeness to the outermost sphere alone), while downplaying the role of the teleological explanation, which likens the movements of heavenly bodies to the goal-directed actions of different kinds of living beings, who move with different levels of complexity, depending on how close they are to their goal and whether...